Should You Pare Down Your Sustainability Agenda?

Enjoy this blog from the SSC archives:

At the beginning of the year, a lot of people find themselves making long lists of things to achieve over the next 12 months. And ambitious sustainability agendas are no exception--it seems like we're always being pushed to do more, move faster, and achieve greater sustainability performance. After all -- we know that global challenges can't be solved by half-measures.

Today, we're challenging the idea that you must do "better" sustainability by doing "more" sustainability-related activities. Instead, let's look at the benefits of doing less. And we'll start by reviewing an article called The Art of Adding by Taking Away by Matthew E. May, published last January in The New York Times

May begins his article with a quote from ancient Chinese philosopher Lao Tzu:

“To attain knowledge, add things every day. To attain wisdom, subtract things every day. Profit comes from what is there, usefulness from what is not there.”

This saying sparked something in May, who began to investigate the logic of problem solving by taking things away:

"It dawned on me that I’d been looking at my problem in the wrong way. As is natural and intuitive, I had been looking at what to do, rather than what not to do. But as soon as I shifted my perspective, I was able to complete the project successfully."

May finds that there are many ways to tie the "doing more by doing less" thinking into the business world:

  • By removing distractions, companies can focus on what really matters.
  • By searching for patterns and finding common elements, companies can spot opportunities earlier and streamline decision-making.
  • By removing product features, companies can drive innovation and reach new audiences.

So what does this mean for sustainability practitioners? 

Take a hard look at your company's sustainability activities -- are they clearly aligned and focused with your business strategy? Are they designed to mitigate your biggest environmental and social impacts? Are they responsive to your key stakeholders?

Or...are your company's sustainability activities spread too thin and flow in so many directions it is difficult to adequately keep track of them? If your sustainability agenda doesn't revolve around a clear strategy, it's time to get off the merry-go-round and do a little paring. Here's what we suggest:

  • Conduct a materiality assessment to identify and prioritize your (internal and external) stakeholders and what they care about. This will give you a short list of sustainability topics that are the most important, and a longer list of "nice to have" activities to tackle as time permits.
  • Assess each of your existing sustainability activities against a materiality matrix. If you find that activities are falling outside of the "must have" sustainability priorities, you should consider redirecting resources to more important places.
  • Develop guidelines to help you address the importance, effectiveness, and urgency of any new activities under consideration. This will keep you on the straight and narrow going forward.

If you'd like some help in conducting a materiality assessment, please contact us! We love to take clients through this process--it's enlightening, empowering, and energizing to identify what's important (and what you can leave behind).

In the meantime, we love May's final advice about how to apply this thinking to your own life:

"First, create a “not to do” list to accompany your to-do list. Give careful thought to prioritizing your goals, projects and tasks, then eliminate the bottom 20 percent of the list — forever."

"Second, ask those who matter to you most — clients, colleagues, family members and friends — what they would like you to stop doing. Warning: you may be surprised at just how long the list is."

"The lesson I’ve learned from my pursuit of less is powerful in its simplicity: when you remove just the right things in just the right way, something good happens."

Have you tried this approach? We'd love to hear what you're giving up in 2014, and what you're making more room to do! Leave us a comment or join the conversation on Twitter.